Verneuil: A Second Agincourt II

Mites had been able to obtain the master-masons’ cooperation because he persuaded them that the dauphin and the duke of Burgundy had made peace and were preparing to attack Rouen together. In the fevered atmosphere before Verneuil this was believable, not least because there had been a major quarrel between Philippe of Burgundy and Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. In the spring of 1423 Gloucester had married Philippe’s cousin, Jacqueline of Bavaria, the countess of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland. Jacqueline had been married before, first to the dauphin Jean de Touraine, who had died in 1417, then to her cousin, John of Brabant. The second marriage was unhappy and she had fled to England, where her personal charms and valuable inheritance so captivated Gloucester that he determined to marry her. When the legitimate pope refused to grant her a divorce, they procured one from the schismatic pope at Avignon.

Gloucester’s actions put a severe strain on the Anglo-Burgundian alliance because Burgundy, who had his own designs on Jacqueline’s territories, sided with his cousin, John of Brabant. All that Bedford had achieved in France was now imperilled by his brother’s impetuous actions, stupidity and greed. In October 1424 Gloucester and his bride landed at Calais at the head of an English army and laid claim to Jacqueline’s lands. They set up a government at Mons but the town quickly surrendered when besieged the following March by Burgundian and Brabantine troops. Gloucester’s little adventure ended ignominiously with him abandoning his wife and returning to England with nothing to show for his efforts except a challenge from the duke of Burgundy to settle their quarrel in personal combat.

The challenge was a deadly serious affair, a trial by battle, which could, and should, result in the death of either combatant. Burgundy went into strict training and spent an inordinate sum of money equipping himself, but the pope intervened to prohibit it and Bedford, holding a court of chivalry in Paris, declared honour was thus duly satisfied without the combat having to take place.

Gloucester’s unwelcome intervention in the Low Countries seems to have pushed Burgundy into making tentative concessions towards the dauphin. In September 1424 they signed the first treaty of abstinence from war between them. Though it covered only the mid-west of France, principally the duchy and county of Burgundy, the Bourbonnais, Mâconnais and Forez, it was of enormous importance for two reasons: the truces were regularly renewed, providing an ongoing dialogue between the two parties, and for the first time Burgundy referred to the dauphin in an official document as ‘king of France’.

At the same time Burgundy was also building up personal ties among the Armagnacs. In April 1423 Bedford had secured a major diplomatic coup with the Treaty of Amiens, a triple alliance between England, Burgundy and Brittany which personally committed the three dukes to ‘true fraternity’ and the preservation of each other’s honour ‘both in private and in public’. The alliance had been sealed with a double marriage: that of Bedford with Anne of Burgundy and Arthur de Richemont, Brittany’s brother, with Anne’s sister, Margaret.

Arthur de Richemont was, like his brother, a man whose loyalties were determined by his own perceived advantage. At first a committed Armagnac, he had been captured at Agincourt and remained an English prisoner for seven years. After he took the oath of loyalty to Henry V he was released on licence, served with the earl of Suffolk against his former allies in France and was granted the lordship of Ivry as his reward. When the earl of Buchan was killed at Verneuil, however, the dauphin offered Richemont the office of constable of France. Richemont consulted his brother-in-law and Burgundy, provoked by Gloucester’s invasion of Hainault, advised him to accept. Richemont’s second spectacular change of allegiance gave Burgundy a useful contact in the dauphin’s court, a link that was strengthened by another double marriage: that of Burgundy himself with his uncle’s widow, Bonne of Artois, countess of Nevers, and his sister Agnès with Bonne’s half-brother, Charles de Bourbon, count of Clermont, a committed Armagnac whose father had been a prisoner in England since Agincourt. Territorial ambition played a part in these marriages but they were undoubtedly a rebuff to the English alliance. More seriously, Richemont’s defection was followed by that of his brother, the duke of Brittany, who in October 1425 signed with the dauphin the Treaty of Saumur, which gave him control of the finances of the kingdom of Bourges and supreme direction of the war ‘for the expulsion of the English’.

Bedford had been unequivocal in his support for Burgundy throughout the crisis caused by his brother, but Gloucester’s penchant for causing mayhem was not limited to the continent. On his return to England he quarrelled spectacularly with his uncle, Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, who had been appointed chancellor the previous year and had used Gloucester’s absence to consolidate his own power in the council and exert his personal influence over the boy-king. Gloucester alleged that Beaufort was planning a coup to seize Henry and at the end of October 1425 there was an armed stand-off between their followers in the streets of London. As events threatened to spiral out of control, Beaufort appealed to Bedford to return home:

as you desire the welfare of the king our sovereign lord and of his realms of England and of France, and your own weal and ours also, haste you hither; for by my troth if you tarry, we shall put this land at risk of a battle. Such a brother you have here. God make him a good man. For your wisdom knows well that the prosperity of France stands in the welfare of England.

Bedford could not ignore such an entreaty. On 26 November he appointed the earls of Salisbury, Suffolk and Warwick as his lieutenants in charge of military affairs in his absence. The same day he issued a set of ordinances to reform abuses of the night-watch which were causing great popular resentment. Captains were prohibited from levying excessive charges, extracting payments from those living outside the designated area or forcing local people to labour in the repair or construction of fortifications. To prevent them imposing arbitrary fines on those who defaulted on their performance of night-watch or physically beating those who fell asleep, a scale of fines was laid out. Finally, in an interesting sidelight on current military practice, captains were ordered to ensure that the watchword for the night was in French, so that those on duty could understand and easily remember it.

Having completed these acts of housekeeping, Bedford left Paris for Calais. On the way, in an incident which must have sowed the seeds of doubt about the wisdom of his leaving France at this time, he survived an attempt on his life by a notorious brigand chief, Sauvage de Frémainville, who was later captured in the castle of l’Isle-Adam, taken to Paris and brutally executed, being beaten at the scaffold, refused permission to make a confession and, because the executioner bungled his hanging at the first attempt, falling, breaking his back and leg, and being forced to remount the scaffold for a second time.31 On 20 December 1425 Bedford and his wife landed at Sandwich. He could not have imagined that it would be fifteen months before he would return to France.

Apart from the four-year-old king, Bedford was the only person senior in standing to both Gloucester and Beaufort, and for that reason only he had sufficient authority to enforce a resolution to their quarrel. Gloucester proved truculent and difficult, refusing to meet his uncle or attend a council meeting to discuss the problem and demanding Beaufort’s removal from office as chancellor. Bedford had to resort to ordering him to attend a meeting of parliament, held at Leicester, well away from Gloucester’s sphere of influence in London, and setting up a committee of the House of Lords to arbitrate between them. The deal Bedford eventually brokered to achieve a public reconciliation was that Beaufort would resign the chancellorship, ostensibly so that he could go on pilgrimage to Rome, but in reality so that he could accept the cardinal’s hat which Henry V had forced him to refuse in 1418. Beaufort thus lost the most important post in the English government but gained the most powerful position in the English church, with authority superior even to that of the archbishop of Canterbury.

Gloucester appeared to have won but, before Bedford returned to France, a new set of ordinances was drawn up which asserted the right of the whole council to be involved in decision-making and emphasised the need to avoid disputes between magnates. Bedford personally and publicly committed himself to the principle that authority during the king’s minority ‘rests not in one single person but in all my said lords together’. Gloucester at first protested that ‘after [Bedford’s] going over into France I will govern as seems good to me’ but then reluctantly gave way.

On 25 March 1427 Bedford personally invested his uncle with the cardinal’s hat at Saint Mary’s church in Calais, just a week after his return to France. In his absence much of the military effort had been directed against Brittany, upon which the English had formally declared war in January 1426 in response to the Treaty of Saumur. Sir Thomas Rempston, the earl of Suffolk’s lieutenant, had mounted a serious offensive into Brittany which had struck as far as Rennes, before withdrawing to establish himself as a threatening presence at the border fortress of Saint-James-de-Beuvron. An attempt by Arthur de Richemont to besiege him there ended in failure after less than two weeks but in January 1427 the Bretons captured the neighbouring stronghold of Pontorson. The earl of Warwick, with six hundred men-at-arms and eighteen hundred archers, recaptured it on 8 May after a ten-week siege: Saint-James-de-Beuvron was then demolished and the garrison and its artillery transferred to Pontorson.

The threat of a full-scale assault on Rennes was now sufficient to bring the duke of Brittany to heel. He agreed a truce which, on 8 September 1427, became a full-scale alliance: the duke abandoned the dauphin again, accepted the Treaty of Troyes and declared himself to be Henry VI’s liege man.

This important diplomatic gain was overshadowed by the breaking news that just three days earlier, on 5 September, the English had suffered two major military defeats. The Bastard of Orléans and La Hire carried out a surprise attack on the English army, commanded by the earls of Suffolk and Warwick, which for more than two months had been besieging Montargis, an important Armagnac stronghold some seventy miles south of Paris. Several hundred soldiers and civilians were killed and the earls were forced to retire so quickly that they left behind their artillery and baggage.

On the same day Ambroise de Loré ambushed and defeated a substantial force of Englishmen at Ambrières, a village less than two miles from Sainte-Suzanne, the fortress-base of Sir John Fastolf, governor of Anjou and Maine. Fastolf’s nephew was taken prisoner, but most of his men were either slaughtered or put to flight. This victory put such heart into the Armagnacs that when, shortly afterwards, the castle of La Gravelle agreed to capitulate to Fastolf unless relieved in the meantime, the garrison went back on its sworn terms and refused to surrender. Bedford was so incensed by this that he personally ordered the execution of the unfortunate hostages for the surrender and not long afterwards removed Fastolf from office.

Several other important strongholds in Maine fell to the resurgent Armagnacs in the wake of Ambrières, including Nogentle-Rotrou, Nogent-le-Roi and La-Ferté-Bernard. Unusually a detailed description of how La-Ferté-Bernard was lost has survived in a non-chronicle source. The captain of this small but important fortress, twenty-eight miles north-east of Le Mans, was Robert Stafford, an esquire whose loyal service in Normandy had been rewarded with grants of land by Henry V in 1419. In February 1428 these were all confiscated from him as punishment for his negligence in allowing La-Ferté-Bernard to fall into enemy hands. It was alleged by the new governor of Anjou and Maine, lord Talbot, that Stafford had been warned that traitors were plotting to betray the place and been given a list of their names. Instead of arresting them and taking pre-emptive defensive measures, he had merely retreated into the castle ‘which is impregnable’ and then surrendered, despite there being neither an assault nor a bombardment. According to the law of arms, since he had put up no resistance his lands were rightfully forfeit.

Stafford’s response to these charges was that he had appointed trusted townsmen and garrison members to guard the gates and sent out scouts to warn of the enemy’s approach. Only then had he retired into the castle but, during the night, some of the local officials had opened the town gates to the enemy, who had set fire to the castle bridge and gate. He had been unable to defend the castle, he said, because the only gunner was absent, the sole cannon was in need of repair and there was just one crossbow left in the munitions store – and that had no string. In the face of such woefully inadequate equipment, the garrison had mutinied and forced him to negotiate a surrender. Stafford argued that he had done all that could reasonably be expected of him, in the circumstances: La-Ferté-Bernard had fallen ‘by chance and bad luck, not by his fault’.

Stafford was so determined to clear his name that he appealed his forfeiture to the parlement of Paris, the highest court in the land. His honour had been impugned and he felt that he had been unjustly deprived of the estates he had built up in a hitherto unblemished career of almost a decade of loyal and continuous military service to the crown in France. To add insult to injury, as he plaintively informed the court, on his way to Paris to bring his suit he had been captured by the enemy, despite having a safe-conduct, and had been forced to pay a ransom of 800 saluts (£64,167). Surprisingly, since the embarrassing lack of weaponry in the castle would seem to have been prima facie evidence of his negligence as captain, Stafford was cleared of misconduct and his forfeiture was reversed. Nevertheless, it took him six years to achieve this result, and he may have won only on the technicality that the summary forfeiture of his lands without a hearing or a right of appeal was unjust.

The task of recovering La-Ferté-Bernard and the other places in Maine taken by the Armagnacs would fall to John Talbot, who was then relatively unknown in France but would become one of the key men in the fight to maintain the English kingdom. Famously short-tempered, he did not suffer fools gladly, but his bravery, boldness and exceptional talent as a soldier and leader inspired his compatriots and his battlefield prowess struck terror into the hearts of the French. A Knight of the Garter, married to the eldest daughter and heiress of Thomas, earl of Warwick, Talbot was one of the richest men in England. Now in his early forties, he had spent his entire life in arms, playing a leading role in the suppression of rebellions in Wales and Ireland, where he had learned the military arts of speed and surprise which would inspire such fear in his opponents. He had served in France only once before, during the last two years of Henry V’s life, returning with Bedford in March 1427 for what was supposed to be a six-month contract but would become a lifelong commitment.

Talbot began his campaign in the spring of 1428 by unexpectedly launching a punitive raid into the west of Maine and capturing Laval, a town which had never fallen to the English before. With that safely under his belt he proceeded to mop up all the pockets of resistance in the east of the county. On 25 May, however, the capital, Le Mans, was betrayed by some of its citizens to La Hire, who took the town and began a siege of the castle, into which the English garrison had retreated. Talbot was then thirty-two miles away at Alençon but in the early hours of 28 May he arrived at the head of three hundred soldiers and retook Le Mans by storm. La Hire’s men were trapped between the relieving force and the garrison, who, on hearing Talbot’s war-cry in the streets, threw stones on their besiegers and then rushed out to join in the slaughter. So many prisoners were taken that a special court of chivalry had to be set up, under the presidency of lord Scales, to decide disputes between their captors, and one especially complicated case, involving Talbot himself, John Popham, William Oldhall, Thomas Rempston and William Glasdale, was appealed to the parlement of Paris.

Talbot’s swift recapture of Le Mans and the savage retribution he exacted on those who had betrayed the town to the enemy established his reputation as ‘the English Achilles’, one of the most feared of English captains. Bedford too recognised his talents, rewarding him with generous gifts of land and summoning him to attend his council in Paris. Talbot had earned his place as one of the senior English commanders in the major new campaign planned for the forthcoming summer.

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